CANNAVOTE: Legal marijuana states: Election Day brings pot debate to North Dakota, Utah, Michigan and Missouri voters
DENVER — Legal pot is poised to spread further across the country this Election Day, with millions of voters casting ballots that could roll back marijuana prohibition in two states and expand access to medical cannabis in two others.
In North Dakota, voters may approve what would be the nation's most permissive recreational marijuana laws, allowing adults to grow, consume and possess as much pot as they want, without government oversight. And in Utah, the state's conservative residents are virtually guaranteed to see medical cannabis laws approved thanks to a deal struck between legalization advocates and religious leaders staunchly opposed to even alcohol and caffeine.
Meanwhile, Michiganders are widely expected to approve a system to legalize, tax and regulate recreational pot, and Missourians are considering three competing measures permitting medical use.
The ballot measures come at a time when the majority of U.S. states have already embraced some form of legal pot. Nine states permit recreational marijuana use, along with the District of Columbia. And 29 states plus D.C. permit medical marijuana use by large numbers of people. Alabama and Mississippi have also allowed its use, but by only a small number of extremely sick people.
Marijuana remains entirely illegal at the federal level, although 66 percent of Americans support legal recreational cannabis, according to an October poll by Gallup.
"Clearly the national momentum is on our side and we see that in national polls, but national polls don't dictate state-level results," said Matthew Schweich, deputy-director of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. "We still have a fight on our hands in every single state where we're trying to legalize."
In North Dakota, voters are considering Measure 3, which in addition to fully legalizing recreational marijuana, would also expunge many marijuana-related criminal records. Unlike many other legalization measures, however, Measure 3 does not create a system to tax and regulate marijuana sales. Instead it permits residents to grow unlimited amounts of marijuana and then sell it tax-free. In other states that have legalized pot, anyone growing marijuana for sale is strictly regulated, and the amount people can buy is tightly controlled.
The measure, which hews to libertarian ideals, also repeals any state laws addressing marijuana, which opponents say would permit stoned driving or smoking indoors. North Dakotans two years ago approved a medical marijuana system that only just got up and running this week, and many legalization advocates have been frustrated by what they saw as the slow pace to implementation.
The chance this measure could pass -- and some polls suggest it might -- has alarmed the state's political establishment because it would take effect in 30 days.
“It’s a wide-open, no-holds-barred, no-limits on anything, no-oversight, poorly written measure," said Norm Robinson, campaign manager for North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana.
The measure's backers say they're comfortable the proposal's language accomplishes their goals of broad legalization with little government intervention. Defense attorneys across the state are already asking judges to postpone sentencing in marijuana-related cases, arguing their clients will get their records expunged automatically if the measure passes.
Utah's marijuana debate has drawn national attention to a battle between the pro-legalization Utah Patients Coalition and the powerful Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes the plan. However, a last-minute compromise brokered among the church, initiative backers and the state's political establishment has laid the groundwork for medical pot in Utah regardless of whether Prop. 2 passes. Utah has about 3 million residents.
Marijuana products and plants on display at The Green Solution dispensary in Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY Network)
"There's a lot of voters who support marijuana in principle but didn't want to go in opposition of the LDS church," Schweich said. "The important thing about Utah is that we have made a compromise with our opponents."
Up until a few weeks ago, Utah's measure enjoyed strong support, but that eroded as the LDS church formally opposed the plan and opponents began running highly critical radio ads warning this was a step toward full legalization.
The two sides then agreed on a more conservative compromise measure that state legislators will take up soon after the election. Under Utah law, lawmakers are free to amend or repeal voter-approved ballot measures, and Schweich said the compromise ensures something will pass regardless of the actual public vote outcome.
More than 60 percent of the state's residents are LDS members, and are taught to avoid alcohol, coffee and most kinds of tea, along with tobacco and illegal drugs. The church maintains a powerful influence over the state's government, but LDS leaders agreed to the compromise measure that bans residents from growing their own cannabis, and tries to establish a state-run medical marijuana distribution network. Smoking cannabis would remain illegal under the measure, but sick people would be able to eat marijuana-infused foods or use vape pens.
Schweich said the compromise plans provide a clear path forward, even if voters reject Prop. 2: "They're better than nothing, and they provide a path to access to patients and a path on which we can build for the future."
Michigan’s Proposal 1 enjoys strong support, according to a Detroit Free Press poll, with as much as 57 percent of voters in favor. Michigan voters legalized medical marijuana in 2008. Neighboring Canada on Oct. 17 legalized marijuana sales for adults, adding additional pressure on Michigan to follow its lead.
Opponents say Michigan voters need to consider the long-term implications of their decision, and suggest the tax revenues will fall far short of funding increased drug-treatment and campaigns to keep kids from using cannabis. Proposal 1 creates a system to regulate, tax and sell marijuana to adults.
"I wonder if there would be anything left for Michigan other than a bad policy that will affect the state for decades to come," said Scott Greenlee, director of Healthy and Productive Michigan, a group opposing the ballot proposal.
In Missouri, voters are choosing between three plans: Amendment 2, Amendment 3 and Prop. C. All three would legalize growing, manufacturing, selling and consuming marijuana and marijuana products for medicinal use at the state level. Under state law, the measure that gets the most votes goes into effect, and the Constitutional amendments would trump the proposition.
Prop C would tax marijuana sales at 2 percent; proceeds would be split four ways to fund veterans health care, public safety, drug treatment programs and early childhood development initiatives. Amendment 2 would tax marijuana sales at 4 percent, with the resulting proceeds going to fund veterans health care programs. This is the only proposal that would allow for home-growing of marijuana.
Kennya Anderson of Chicago passes a joint to her friend as marijuana smoke trickles from her lips during the Denver 420 rally.
Amendment 3 would tax sales by growers to dispensaries at $9.25 per ounce for marijuana flowers and $2.75 per ounce for leaves and would tax sales by dispensaries to patients at 15 percent. The proceeds — projected to be by far the most of the three measures — would go toward setting up a research institute and efforts to cure currently incurable diseases, with money set aside to acquire land for the institute's campus and to fund transportation infrastructure, medical care, public pensions and income tax refunds.